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A few weeks ago a teacher from my school deservedly received a Milken Educator Award. Dubbed the ‘Oscar’ of teaching, she was surprised with the honor during a rock star ceremony complete with cheering kids, public officials, and local media.
As our principal later said, “Think of the kids screaming for their teacher like she is a celebrity and thinking if I become a teacher this could happen to me.”
In a world that does little to recognize the expertise, professionalism, service, and impact of teachers, the entire show was a fresh of breath air. I couldn’t be happier for her. Even if I wasn’t standing up there, it was inspiring to see a colleague get hard earned pubic recognition. She is flat out one of the best teachers I know. She builds authentic and caring relationships with students, takes on leadership roles, and is active in the community. She is the cream of the crop, no doubt about it.
While taking nothing away from her achievement, there are so many teachers that make tremendous positive impact. They wait for the attention they will probably never see. I tend to be both skeptical and passionate about the work of teachers. I do believe that teachers must collectively “awaken” to greater consciousness as a profession, yet I also experience on a daily basis the unbelievable joy and dedication most teachers bring to their students. I digress, but simply want to get across the point that there are amazing teachers doing amazing work in the field of education. Ms. F. is but one, rather marvelous, example.
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Unfortunately the work of such teachers goes mostly unnoticed. The Milken’s are an apparition not the norm. In fact, I was not surprised that Forbes’ 30 under 30 Education list included exactly zero K-12 teachers. Perhaps the title of teacher is not ‘cool’ enough. Perhaps our work is not innovative. Perhaps our work is not ‘disruptive’. Perhaps our job is that of intellectual work and public service, not sexy enough because we lack venture capital or Silicon Valley money. I wish to take nothing away from the individuals who made the list. That is not my intent. Rather, my intent is to show that the work of teachers is immensely undervalued. How could one put together such a list without recognizing at least one person who enters a classroom day in and day out?
I must admit that this narrative, one that values the entrepreneur, the policy maker, and the edtech founder above and beyond those who make teaching a career influenced me. I left full time teaching for a year to cofound an edtech company. There is nothing wrong with this. I am proud of what I did, what I built, and the choice I made. I learned a ton and had the chance to talk to all sorts of people in education. Yet I must be honest. Part of the reason I left was because I thought I needed to do something more than teach. I needed to do something bigger, something better. I was wrong. While I may not be a teacher forever, I returned to the classroom because I missed the daily connection with students and colleagues. I missed the very important work I was doing. Even when that work was tough, discouraging, and exhausting, I knew it mattered.
While we (classroom teachers) work day in and day out to do the best we can, our work is constantly slammed by politicians and policy makers. We are viewed as inferior. We are asked to take on more and more work. We are treated like disempowered technicians and demoralized automatons. Our work is controlled and scrutinized. There is an intensification and proletarianization of our profession (Apple, 1986). Standardization, testing, and so called ‘teacher-proof’ curriculum try to strip us of our agency. Too often ‘innovations’ and ‘disruptions’ make this push more effective and efficient. This is part of the reason I stepped away from the allure of edtech. I am not sure if these celebrated innovations will mean much unless we tackle underlying inequities based on class and race. Those in power think we can ignore these realities with cute apps and fancy computers. Teachers know we cannot. Everybody has an idea to make teaching better, but very few listen to the teacher or the community.
I understand Forbes serves a certain audience. I understand that education is much larger than the K-12 system. I applaud and congratulate those who made the list. Kudos! I hope their work helps improve the lives of children around the country and the world. Congratulations are also in store for the game changers we neglect, those fabulous teachers that work to build the hearts, minds, and souls of the students they encounter everyday. Schools and teachers must be responsive to their communities and students, not just the marketplace (Brantlinger, 2003). I am so happy my colleague was celebrated in such a way. She is a leader. She is an inspiration. I learn from her each day. She is da bomb. But there are more like her. They may not make lists or stockpile awards, but their labor is the foundation of the future of our world.
Brantlinger, E. (2003). Dividing Classes: how the middle class negotiates and rationalized school advantage. New York, London: RoutledgeFalmer.
Apple, M. W. (1986). “Controlling the Work of Teachers,” in The Curriculum Studies Reader, 4th edition, edited by D.J. Flinders & S.J. Thornton. New York: Routledge, 2013.